You may have heard that linen is a sustainable fabric, but why is linen so sustainable? Here we uncover the facts about linen, explore linen pros and cons, and discover how linen affects the environment.
Linen has been a trend setter for centuries, but why wear linen today? You may well have been recommended by a friend or heard that it is very eco friendly. So why is linen sustainable and how does linen affect the environment? It’s no doubt the reason you are reading this page.
Linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics known to man, yet it represents less than 1% of all textile fibres consumed worldwide. There are 10 reasons why linen fabric is eco friendly.
Let's start with a quick video of how linen is made:
The majority of clothes we wear today are either man made or very chemically intensive to produce. Linen is made from flax plants, a plant which grows without the need for fertilizers or pesticides. This means it is a renewable resource, one that is fast growing and can be produced without damaging the environment.
Fun fact about linen, one hectare of flax can take 3.7 tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere. That means from all the linen grown in Europe, around 250,000 tonnes of CO2 is removed each year! This is the same as driving the average car over 560,000,000 miles! Or put another way, it saves enough CO2 to drive around the planet nearly 22,600 times.
If every French citizen bought a linen shirt tomorrow rather than a cotton one, it would save the equivalent of all Paris’s drinking water for a year!
Cotton is a very thirsty plant. To make one shirt from cotton requires around 4 times the amount of water than is needed to make one shirt from linen. This can be disastrous for the local populations that grow cotton, often leading to drought and catastrophic habitat destruction. In comparison, natural rainfall is usually enough to irrigate flax plants grown in Europe. In fact, growing flax and weaving it into linen is the least water and energy intensive part of linen clothing’s life cycle. A report by the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC) found that almost 80% of linen's energy and water consumption derives from washing and ironing the garment.
Flax thrives in the temperate climates of Western Europe, and requires few fertilisers or pesticides to produce. As impressive as it might sound, flax often comes close to the organic standard without even trying. This compares to cotton, which is one of the most chemically intensive crops on the planet.
85% of the world’s flax is grown in Europe. If you are European, the fabric doesn’t need to travel halfway around the world to make it to your wardrobe. Less shipping and transportation means that linen releases significantly less CO2 emissions.
However, a big word of caution. France, Europe’s largest grower of flax, exported 77% of its flax crop in 2019 to be processed in China. The majority of this was sold to developing countries, but it’s still worth knowing the origins of your linen fibre. Although not always possible, try to buy top quality European fibres made and processed locally.
A top tip for how to buy sustainable linen, look for sustainable certifications such as MASTERS OF LINEN ®, which is a mark that linen has been sourced and produced in Europe.
Another benefit of being grown locally is that flax can provide ethical local employment to farmers and manufacturers based in Europe.
A key reason why linen is a sustainable fabric is because the entire flax plant can be woven into a fibre, which means that almost no waste is left over from the spinning and weaving process. If organically processed without chemicals or intensive dyes, it also means no water pollution is made.
Yes, linen is 100% biodegradable and recyclable. However, as with any natural material you should be careful about how the fabric might have been treated, particularly the environmental impact of some dyes. Best to be on the side of caution, look for companies that prioritise low impact dyes or better yet, look for natural non-dyed colours such as ivory, ecru, tan and grey.
Fun fact: How long does linen take to biodegrade? Pure natural linen can start to decompose in just two weeks. To speed up the decomposition process, make sure to cut it into small pieces.
Linen has been used for centuries to make everything from clothes to bed linen, even armour. It is one of the toughest fabrics, meaning it will last for years. The longer you wear your clothes without replacing, the more sustainably you are dressing.
Flax helps to diversify ecosystems, offering a welcome break to intensive agriculture. Go past a field of flax and you will notice it is alive with wildlife, helping promote biodiversity and soil regeneration.
So far we have only discussed the environmental benefits of linen. There are many more pros as well as some cons of using linen fabric beyond its environmental impact. What are the advantages of linen?
Linen offers styles perfect for those hot summer days. It’s hollow fibres allow air to easily pass through the fabric, keeping you cool and fresh. The material feels cool to the touch, and its natural crispness gently drapes the fabric so that it hangs away from the body, ensuring you stay comfortable in the sun. It can be said with confidence that linen is good for the summer.
Although breathable and cool in summer, its hollow fibres also ensure linen has good thermo regulating properties. This means linen will keep you warmer when the temperature drops.
Linen absorbs moisture without holding bacteria, meaning your clothes won’t get smelly and will require less frequent washing. The less often you wash your clothes, the longer your clothes will last, the more sustainable your wardrobe.
Linen can last for 20 years worth of wear and tear without losing its comfort. In other words, linen is one of the toughest fabrics that we can sustainably make clothes from, and the more wears we can get from our clothes the more sustainably we are dressing. We should at least be aiming to achieve 30 wears from each new piece of clothing that we buy. Doesn’t sound like much, but it can be harder than you might think.
Nobody wants clothes that are full of moth holes. With Linen, a major pro is that linen is moth resistant. Not only is this an advantage to you, it also means your clothes last longer, helping you get even more use out of them.
The more linen is washed, the softer it becomes. This is an incredible advantage of linen that means linen clothes actually get better with time.
Linen’s strength and resistance makes it ideal for a number of different products beyond just fashion, such as curtains, tablecloths, bedsheets and other common household fabrics. It can also be woven into more rigid structures such as canvas for paintings, gloves for baking, and is even used to make the American dollar (which is ¼ linen, ¾ cotton). Here is the breakdown of how linen is used:
As a natural material, organic flax is perfect for allergy prone skin. Through the Middle ages, flax was known to help people with skin problems and is still considered today as a healthy fabric to wear.
Linen is a naturally grown plant, requires no chemicals to grow and produce if done organically, uses less water than cotton, is biodegradable and good for the soil.
Unfortunately not all linen is sustainable or environmentally friendly. Although linen requires almost no pesticides or fertilizers to grow, that doesn’t mean that none are added. The production of linen can also be accelerated by adding chemicals, and many dyes require harsh chemicals to change the colour of the tough durable linen fabric.
A top tip when looking to buy sustainable and ethical linen is to read the label. Here are sustainable labels to look for to make sure you are buying environmentally friendly linen:
If you have read this far, you may well have gathered that there are some disadvantages of linen. Not all linen is sustainable, some types can even be bad for the environment.
Not all linen is created equal. Although linen requires few chemicals in growth, this doesn’t mean that no harmful dyes have been used. In fact, farmers use fertilizers to grow most non-organic flax to help encourage growth.
Although linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics, organic linen is much more environmentally friendly than chemically processes linen. The Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres awards organic linen an “A” grade, the best possible rating for any sustainable fibre, whereas conventional (grown or processed with chemicals, pesticides or fertilizers) is awarded “C”. Try to search out organic certified linen that can trace the product back to the crop.
Although linen fibres are strong, they do not stretch due to its low elasticity. What this means is that if it is repeatedly folded and ironed in the same place, it will eventually weaken, fade and break.
Linen is a luxury fabric and remains expensive, that’s no accident. It's a painstakingly slow fabric to produce and is grown in developed countries such as Europe where the cost of labour is higher. Yet this produces a high quality fabric that will last for decades, making it a worthwhile investment.
Why does linen wrinkle so easily? This is a very common question when talking about linen. Most natural and sustainable materials have a degree of elasticity, however linen has virtually none. Once a wrinkle starts to form from sitting or standing, it’s not able to “spring back” when you move. A crease will stay there until it is ironed or steamed out.
This then raises the question, is it OK to wear wrinkled linen? We feel that yes, it’s OK to wear wrinkled linen, own the wrinkles! Wrinkles are a unique part of linen's wonderful texture, so wear them proudly. Without wrinkles, linen can sometimes look a little stiff. However, if you truly want to avoid the wrinkles, you could always look for linen blends which can add that elasticity back to the clothing. Just make sure you are buying sustainable blends such as Tencel or organic cotton.
If you want another reason to wear wrinkled linen, then the energy requirements of ironing might convince you. In fact, 80% of linen’s energy consumption is used during its lifecycle, which can actually be higher than cotton due to the frequent need to iron.
To truly understand the environmental impact of linen, it is important to see how linen is made.
Linen fibres are made from flax plants, which grow in cooler climates such as Western Europe or America.
Flax is sown between mid-March and mid-April, and can be used as part of a crop rotation to help the farmer regenerate their land and prevent intensive farming. Flax has a beautiful blue bloom, with up to 80-100 flowers per stem. By August, the flax plants are ready to be harvested, bailed and transported to local facilities for finishing (look for the MASTERS OF LINEN ® label on linen clothes to check if it has been grown and produced in Europe). Through a completely mechanical process without any need for chemicals, the straw is broken down into soft fibres that can be spun and woven into the fabrics we wear (chemicals may be added to accelerate the process, look for GOTS organic certified linen fabric).
European cultures have been using linen for thousands of years. The oldest known linen was found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia dated to around 36,000 years ago. Other known artifacts of linen have been found in Swiss lake dwellings around 8000BC. In ancient Egypt, linen was used for mummification and symbolized purity and wealth. In fact, linen was so valuable in ancient Egypt that it was even used as a currency in some cases.
Linen was an essential part of the clothing industry for centuries, with Belfast the world leader during the Victorian times. Recently, linen and other natural fibres have fallen out of fashion and been replaced by both cotton and other manmade or synthetic fibres. From 2 million hectares of flax grown globally in 1961 to just 450,000 hectares in 2000, sadly linen has become a rare material to make clothes from.
You can still buy linen clothes from a number of different shops online, here are just a few:
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